Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding has opened for Prince, performed for President Obama and now she’s up for a Best New Artist award at this Sunday’s Grammys. If you don’t know who she is, you better catch up—fast. The 27-year-old multi-lingual singer, bassist, composer and arranger is a pretty big deal in the jazz world and beyond. Just listen to her third album, Chamber Music Society, and you’ll realize why. We recently got a chance to chat with her, and here’s what she had to say:
Congratulations on your Best New Artist Grammy nomination.
It’s an honor. I feel very flattered. It’s really cool that they would let a jazz musician up in that category.
You’re also co-hosting the pre-telecast of the show with Bobby McFerrin—are you nervous?
Of course. That nervous energy is an element of the performance. [Bobby McFerrin] is incredible and I really admire him. We’ll have a lot of fun.
Have you prepared an acceptance speech yet?
[Laughs] That would be wishful thinking. I think the fairytale has already hit the peak, which is being invited to co-host the telecast. I’m going to be involved in a segment focusing on music education, which is powerful and potent. I’m full, fulfilled and thrilled. I don’t want to get too big for my bridges. If by the wild chance that happened, I would have to go up and thank everyone and their mother-in-law.
Your fans span the gamut, and include President Obama, whom you performed for at the White House. How was that?
Thrilling. The first time I went there it was for an event honoring Stevie Wonder. So many of my heroes were sitting in the audience, so I was standing there trying to give a coherent performance in front of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon. Yes, the president was the most powerful figure there, but I was equally struck by everyone in attendance. Again, [Obama] doesn’t create an overwhelming presence, he’s very warm and attentive.
I hear pots and pans from the other side of the phone. Are you in the kitchen?
I’m finishing up my late breakfast. I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept having ideas and waking up and talking to my recorder. I don’t know what was going on. I watched the movie Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich and that must’ve set something off. When I looked at the clock it was 6:11 a.m. and I hadn’t slept. When I tried to go to sleep more ideas would just come.
Speaking of, what inspires you?
Everything. The other day it snowed here in Austin. And that morning the sky had low heavy clouds that then broke and the snow came. The next morning it was clear and the sun was out. If you didn’t see the snow on the ground, you couldn’t tell what had happened. That was inspiring. I came up with a poem that may turn into a song one day.
What drew you to jazz?
The element that most struck me was the improvisation aspect. The concept of getting up on the stage in front of people and having this deep conversation. I really liked that element and felt like it was something I could do. I grew to love the music as a body of ever-expanding work later, but initially it was like ‘wow, this is so fun.’ It’s become my life-long pursuit. I have a lot of big ideas that will take a lot of time to bear fruit.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I really love the writing of Wayne Shorter and Stevie Wonder, the singing of Harry Belafonte and Betty Carter. In general, I like people who are fully committed and artistically brave. I try to learn from what they’ve done. Right now I can’t stop listening to Argentine singer Liliana Herrero. She did a record with a guitarist called Juan Falú and they’re doing the music of a prolific Argentine composer called Cuchi Leguizamón. I’ve had the record since college and I’ve discovered it again and it’s having the same magical spell over me.
Can you break down your heritage for me?
We have some Welsh ancestry, some Native American. My father was a dark skin black dude—not familiar with his specific African heritage—and apparently my mom has some Hispanic relatives, too. It’s hard. My mom had me late and grew up in a culture where diversity wasn’t exciting, like it is now. Her family didn’t make a big effort to embrace and pass on their inherited lineage stories.
You sing in Spanish, how did that come about?
When I was really young my family thought of moving to Mexico. So I studied it and something from that time stuck ‘cause when I grew up I was able to speak better than I should know. I took a class and then started working with management in Spain, where people didn’t know English. I got to practice with them all the time. It evolved bit by bit over the years.
You also sing in Portuguese, and included Milton Nascimento in your album, what is about the language (and Brazilian music) that you love?
I like that I get a chance to explore. In Boston as a bass player, I’d take whatever gig I could get. I fell into this scene of musicians from Brazil and I started exploring the music they were into. I had a chance to go to Brazil with my boyfriend at the time and took a class, using that knowledge to start translating the lyrics. The compositions and the poetry of a lot of the music I discovered spoke to me.
You’re already working on your next album, Radio Music Society. What can we expect?
The basic premise/challenge is to format all the elements of improvised music that are important to me so that it can be played in mainstream radio. I don’t know if that’ll succeed and that’s the innocent, hopeful objective. There are so many opportunities for young people to be exposed to the elements of improvisation, which is the living core of the music.
Q-Tip is producing, right?
It helps to have Q-tip. He’s a phenomenal musician and the way he hears is different from me. The album will be out by 2012.